Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Scene from 1939 movie 'The Wizard of Oz'

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

To Find America, Follow the Yellow Brick Road

• July 04, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

New books, movies, and plays keep spilling out of the perennial wellspring of Oz. Each reveals a facet of that fabled land—and of the generation that produces the work.

ALISSA BURGER GREW UP on an Iowa farm, not all that far from Dorothy Gale’s Kansas. So it’s no surprise that, even more than most children of her generation, she was enthralled by the yearly telecast of The Wizard of Oz. “I was absolutely terrified of the sequence where the face of the Wicked Witch pops up in the magic ball,” she recalls. “I would always cover my eyes and scream.”

Burger remains Oz-obsessed decades later, but the fear she felt has been replaced by fascination. In her new book, The Wizard of Oz as American Myth (McFarland, $35), she charts the various incarnations of the story in print, on film and television, and in the theater, and shows how they reflect the changing attitudes of Americans regarding the role of women, race relations, and the idea of “home.” As she pulls back the curtain on this fantastic tale, we realize we’ve really been looking at ourselves.

Author L. Frank Baum

Author L. Frank Baum

Since L. Frank Baum’s original novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, appeared in 1900, his magical land has been regularly revisited. To date, 39 authorized sequels have been published, including more than a dozen penned by Baum himself. The first of many stage musicals based on the material opened in 1902; its descendants include the Motown-inspired The Wiz from 1975, and the still-running Wicked, which opened in 2003. The iconic 1939 movie is just the best-known of the more than dozen film adaptations, and two more are on the immediate horizon: the animated Dorothy of Oz, opening this year, and Oz, the Great and Powerful, director Sam Raimi’s look at the Wizard’s early life, which arrives in cinemas next spring.

Why so many trips down the Yellow Brick Road? “Everybody knows the story—it’s a familiar touchstone,” says Burger, an assistant professor in the Liberal Arts and Sciences Division at the State University of New York, Delhi. “But there’s so much flexibility there, so much room for reinterpretation.”

Actresses Natalie Daradich and Vicki Noon from musical 'Wicked'

Actresses Natalie Daradich (Good Witch of the North) and Vicki Noon (Wicked Witch of the West) from musical “Wicked,” which reimagined Baum’s wicked witch as a sympathetic character.

Burger explains that Baum’s story follows the basic journey, as laid out by Joseph Campbell, of the mythic hero: the central character leaves home, has fantastic adventures, conquers an enemy, acquires self-knowledge, and returns safely, bearing newfound wisdom. While that describes leading men from Gilgamesh to Bilbo Baggins, Baum conceived this classic scenario in one radically different way: he made his hero a heroine. Baum’s mother-in-law was the feminist leader Matilda Joslyn Gage, and according to Burger, she “was also the person who encouraged him to write down the stories he told to children.” Given their close relationship, it makes sense that the Oz books are “full of pretty strong female characters. Dorothy doesn’t have to be taken care of. Patriarchal power is questioned really dynamically, as we see the Wizard for what he really is”—which is to say, an empty suit.

Granted, at the end of the first book (and the 1939 movie), Dorothy assumes a motherlike role, helping male characters such as the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion find their inner strength. Having done so, she is content to return home to Kansas, presumably to resume the role of dutiful niece. But Baum upends that status quo in his sequels, in which “Dorothy ends up taking Aunt Em and Uncle Henry back to Oz with her, and we see very powerful matriarchal societies—some positive, some negative,” Burger says.

Poster from musical The Wiz

On one level, the story’s various permutations reflect our evolving notions of the proper role of the woman in American society. In the original, the female character who actively seeks power, the Wicked Witch of the West, is a monster who must be destroyed, while the “good girl” heroine is torn between the longing for adventure (somewhere over the rainbow) and safety (there’s no place like home). In The Wiz, “home” is more of a psychological concept than a physical place, while the musical Wicked sets aside the nuclear family in favor of “a fun focus on female friendship.” Rather than representing the archetypes of good and evil, Burger notes, that the “good” and “bad” witches in the phenomenally popular Wicked “are presented as fully fleshed-out, rounded characters that girls really relate to.”

Burger is eager to discover whether Dorothy of Oz will present still more complex versions of these familiar characters. “The message boards on the first trailer were full of comments like ‘This looks really stupid’ and ‘That’s not how Dorothy is supposed to look,’” she says. “Each new incarnation produces that kind of initial backlash, but it gradually becomes another piece of the puzzle.” Or another brick in that golden road.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 6:00 AM

How Do We Know Our Environmental Laws Are Working?

Ask a great white shark.


October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.